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Tapes Indicate Johnson Doubted Attack in Tonkin Gulf

[NY Times - 11/6/01] WASHINGTON, Nov. 5 A new book examining secret tapes President Lyndon B. Johnson made in the early days of the Vietnam War show that only weeks after Congress gave him the authority to pursue the war in 1964, he privately acknowledged that the incident that inspired the resolution probably never happened.

"When we got through with all the firing," Johnson said ruefully to his secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, "we concluded maybe they hadn't fired at all."

Johnson was referring to the purorted attacks by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on two United States destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. In fact, the judgment of history is that the attack which through the subsequent Gulf of Tonkin resolution provided the basis for American escalation of the war throughout the rest of Johnson's presidency was a false alarm.

The conversation came from the latest batch of secret tape recordings Johnson made in the White House, which form the centerpiece of a new book, "Reaching for Glory," edited by the presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and to be published on Tuesday by Simon & Schuster.

Mr. Beschloss also had exclusive access to a tape-recorded diary kept every afternoon by Lady Bird Johnson, who described her husband's growing bouts with depression and his fears that the worst in the war could be ahead.

At the same time, Mrs. Johnson worried that her husband was becoming obsessed with the fear that his enemies were trying to enmesh him in scandal.

"I think the fear that haunts him is a sort of Harding complex," Mrs. Johnson told her audio diary on Jan. 13, 1965, just days before his inauguration, referring to the Teapot Dome scandal that engulfed Warren Harding's presidency.

A month later she confided that she heard her husband telling Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, "I'm not temperamentally equipped to be commander in chief," because of his emotional involvement in every decision that could cost an American life. In fact, he asked at one point to be awakened whenever an American was killed in Vietnam, she reported early in the war.

It was the start of a very different war from today's battle against terrorism, fought in an entirely different atmosphere. Yet it is still chilling, in the current environment, to hear a president 36 years ago complain of the futility of bombing an elusive enemy that hid in tunnels and survived one attack after another.

"I don't believe they're ever going to quit," Johnson told Mr. McNamara in 1965, as he was preparing to greatly escalate American involvement in Vietnam.

Johnson also feared that despite his public declarations to the contrary, his administration did not have a "plan for victory militarily or diplomatically."

Mr. Beschloss noted the large differences between Vietnam and the current military action. "The Vietnam war and the war on terrorism are almost polar opposites," he said in an interview today.

"In Vietnam we were at the start a divided country fighting for a purpose that we now know was not essential to win the cold war," Mr. Beschloss said. "In the war on terrorism, we are absolutely united in fighting for one of the most basic purposes of American society, protecting the physical security of every American."

The tapes provide a gripping picture of the pressures on a president as a distant war drags on, with the commander in chief weighing the use of ground troops while receiving conflicting reports about the fighting skills of a shadowy enemy trained in guerrilla warfare.

Ever the consummate politician, Johnson was clearly intent on suppressing potentially damaging information. Just before the 1964 election, in which he soundly beat Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, Johnson was warned by his press secretary, George Reedy, that Republicans claimed to have "a picture of you taken some time in late 1960 or in 1961 with a woman named Wanda DuBonier in a compromising situation."

Johnson denied knowing her but sent the Federal Bureau of Investigation to check out the reports and interview the woman. (She denied an affair, the investigators reported.)

While Johnson was well known for using the F.B.I. and the Internal Revenue Service to punish his enemies, the new tapes offer a first-hand view of how he did it.

In September 1964, he told Drew Pearson, the syndicated columnist, to call two aides who would "give you some leaks" about H. L. Hunt, the Texas millionaire and right-wing enemy of Johnson.

He also used information from J. Edgar Hoover to try to smear Goldwater at a key moment in the campaign, sending word to reporters that he had links to the Mafia. Later Johnson declared that antiwar groups on campuses were secretly "led by Communist groups," and suggested that several senators were being manipulated by the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin. He also called Humphrey "the biggest sieve in town" for leaks to reporters.

[posted 11/6/01]


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